London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.
Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.
Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.
During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.
Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).